A Killer Detail: You Don’t Belong Here

You don’t need to be an immigrant or a minority to know what it feels like to be rejected by a desirable group, or any group for that matter, even a group that didn’t seem to exist until you walked up to it and the circle closed to exclude you. You just need to remember high school, or that sickening feeling you had walking down the street after a breakup and looking at all those couples holding hands as if they were touched by divine grace and you by plague. I do have this feeling of not belonging now and then, but I didn’t think I was going to revisit it when I picked up The Prince by Niccolo Machiavelli.

I didn’t get around to reading this small volume until now, but I approached it with the excitement of a long-deserved present. Teach me, oh, wise one, teach me how people’s minds really work. In retrospect, I know that by “people” Machiavelli and I mean different things.

In Romania, there’s a saying, “Don’t take a big bag to the praised tree.” Sure, I found all sorts of nuggets in The Prince, such as “all armed prophets have succeeded and all unarmed prophets have failed,” though “failed” means merely dying before seeing their doctrine take hold. But most of the ideas in this book have been so thoroughly studied and absorbed by our modern culture that we take them for granted instead of seeing them as revelations. Machiavelli calls out the incredulity of people who have no faith in new things meant to help them. I only need to think of the Affordable Care Act in recent years, here in the US. He talks about a prince’s need to destroy the people in line for the throne and their families. That’s a thread that connects Ancient Greece to today’s North Korea and Saudi Arabia. From the classic writers to the gripping TV shows of our day, Machiavelli’s ideas are used everywhere to amp up drama, and we expect them to be there as a sign of sophistication on the writer’s part.

This state of affairs can be applied to the field of psychology in general, where the ideas of Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung have either been discarded or enhanced by future generations of scientists (such as Carol S. Dweck, Michael Shermer, Dan Ariely, Angela Duckworth, and many more, whose ideas will be discarded or enhanced by future generations).

While I wasn’t as impressed as I expected, I had fun reading. One thing I did was to substitute “you/the prince” with “Obama” so I could tease out a slick explanation for his failure to appease his opposition with entreaties of post-partisanship.

“But when [these nobles] avoid joining you, through cunning or ambition, that is a sign that they have more concern for themselves than for you. As regards these nobles, a prince must be on his guard, and he must fear them as though they were professed enemies, for in time of adversity they will be out to ruin him.” (Chapter XI—Concerning the civil principality)

I replaced “you/the prince” with “Trump” to get a nice statement about why others see him as weak and easy to manipulate.

“Therefore a prudent prince will pursue a third course, choosing the wise men of his state and granting only to them the freedom to tell him the truth, but only concerning those matters about which he asks, and no others. Yet he should question them about all matters, listen to their opinions, and then decide for himself as he wishes. He should treat these councils and individual advisers in such a way as to make it clear that their words will be the more welcome the more freely they are spoken. Except for these men, he should listen to no one, but rather pursue the course agreed upon and do so resolutely. Anyone who does otherwise will fall victim to flatterers or, as a result of the various opinions he hears, will often change his mind and thereby lose reputation.” (Chapter XXII—How to avoid flatterers)

And then I reached the end of Chapter XXV—Concerning the influence of fortune in human affairs, and the manner in which it is to be resisted (emphasis added).

“Therefore, since fortune changes while human beings remain constant in their methods of conduct, I conclude that men will succeed so long as method and fortune are in harmony and they will fail when these are no longer in harmony. But I surely think that it is better to be impetuous than to be cautious, for fortune is a woman and in order to be mastered she must be jogged and beaten. And it may be noted that she submits more readily to boldness than to cold calculation. Therefore, like a woman, she always favors young men because they are not so much inclined to caution as to aggressiveness and daring in mastering her.”

Screech.

I read and reread that paragraph. I mean, what did I expect? This was Florence in the sixteenth century. Sure, Machiavelli once mentions Caterina Sforza, a countess who put up a good fight against Cesare Borgia. Then nothing—until the beating part. And so I sat there, holding that small volume and contemplating the now-obvious absence of a book never written named The Princess.

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